Sitting back and being patient is how the Kenai Central boys basketball team learned it would be in the Class 4A state basketball tournament.
But sitting back and being patient is not how the Kardinals plan to stay in the tournament.
Kenai (17-9 overall) opens play in its first state appearance since 2008 against Dimond at 3:15 p.m. Thursday at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
The Lynx feature 6-foot-8 senior Ryden Hines and 6-7 seniors Luke Adams and Colter Lasher.
“We have to rely on our game and not get caught up in what they are doing,” said Kenai senior guard AJ Hull. “6-7 is tall, but 6-7 can’t get up and down the court as quickly as we can.”
That urgency is opposite of the attribute the Kards needed on the night of March 4, when their season was hanging in the balance. Kenai did not qualify for state automatically, so it had to wait to see if it qualified due to its Winning Percentage Index.
ASAA was supposed to announce the state brackets at 6 p.m., but technical difficulties meant the announcement did not come until 8:30 p.m.
The Kardinals, the No. 7 seed at state, played Dimond, the No. 2 seed, on Jan. 19 and lost 61-43. The game was tied at 26 at halftime, but the Lynx dominated the second half to the tune of 35-17.
Kenai coach Ken Felchle said that in the first half of the third quarter, his squad missed four or five 5- to 10-foot jumpers. Dimond hit three straight 3-pointers and opened up a double-digit lead. Felchle said the Kards played even the rest of the way until fouling late in the game to try and make up the deficit.
Felchle said the key against Dimond is to be able to push the pace against the 1-2-2 trap of the Lynx without turning the ball over. In the loss to Dimond, Kenai was out-rebounded 34-27, but the real problem came in the turnover department.
Kenai had 22 turnovers while the Lynx had just 10.
“We have to be stronger with the ball,” Kenai senior Joe Sandahl said. “I’ve got to be stronger with the ball. I made a lot of turnovers in that game because I was not strong with the ball.”
Felchle said the Kards handled the press just fine in the first half, when Kenai led 18-12 at one point, but struggled mightily against pressure in the second half.
“We have to make better decisions this time in the second half,” senior Colton Hayes said. “The turnovers got to us.”
Felchle said part of the problem is depth off the bench. He said his team is not as deep as in the past, so his players know they have to take breaks at times. But taking a break against an elite team like Dimond results in an insurmountable deficit.
“I’ve told them, ‘You can’t take breaks on the floor. You have to take a break off the floor,’” he said. “They’re getting better at that.”
Felchle said the bench, led by Wyatt Fitt, has risen to the occasion lately, giving his starters more confidence in requesting a quick rest.
In the first Dimond contest, 6-6 junior Shane Spalding played 30 minutes, senior starter Bo Reilly played 30 minutes, Hull played 30 minutes and Hayes played 29 minutes. Sandahl played 17 minutes, while Fitt had 11.
Reilly said the Kards’ have a good plan to defeat Dimond, but that will mean nothing without energy.
“I like the game plan, but we have to pick up the intensity a lot more,” he said. “(Tuesday’s) practice was weak. We were happy to just have made state.”
The Kards, and the Kenai Peninsula, have had some success against four-time state champion Dimond at the big dance recently. In 2008, Kenai became the first peninsula boys team since 1998 to win a first-round game at state when Daniel Gustkey scored 29 points to spark a 74-73 overtime upset of the Lynx.
“I know that history,” Hull said. “They were huge underdogs and they used it to their advantage.”
The next season, the Soldotna boys lost a 55-52 overtime game to Dimond in the state championship. SoHi avenged that defeat in 2010 by topping the Lynx 78-76 in double overtime in the first round at state.
Felchle said he would definitely be up for an overtime contest with Dimond. He said his team has won every tight game it has been in this year, except for a 53-43 loss to Colony in the semifinals of the Northern Lights Conference tournament.
Hull has been on varsity for four years, starting for three. Reilly also has been on varsity for four years. Sandahl and Hayes have been on varsity for three years.
“These seniors are doing what seniors should do when a game gets close,” Felchle said. “They know what it takes to win those games.”
Because of all that experience, Felchle said his team will not be happy just to get to state.
The coach said he has let the five seniors — Hull, Hayes, Sandahl, Reilly and Alex Springer — take ownership of the team all year. Instead of putting up goals on a board, Felchle gave his players a folder with sheets filled with checkboxes next to items like boxing out, playing with focus and hustling on defense.
After practice, each player goes through a self-evaluation.
“They will show up ready to play,” Felchle said. “They’ve shown up all year. They know what needs to be done.”